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Out of Africa

The extreme violence in Kenya is alarming for the whole Horn of Africa region. Kenya has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most stable States in East Africa.

india Updated: Jan 04, 2008 02:32 IST

The extreme violence in Kenya is alarming for the whole Horn of Africa region. It is particularly unfortunate, as Kenya has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most stable States in East Africa. The immediate trigger for the ethnic bloodletting appears to have been last week’s elections and the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki to a second five-year term in office. It set off charges of electoral rigging by Opposition leader, Raila Odinga, who claimed he was actually leading the votes tally before Mr Kibaki’s supporters doctored the results. It is unclear whether this is true or not, but from all accounts, Mr Kibaki’s ruling Democratic Party was trounced in the parliamentary elections that were held alongside. The defeat included the electoral losses of several cabinet ministers and the country’s Vice-President.

Mr Kibaki’s party won only about 35 out of 210 seats, compared to the 100 seats won by Mr Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement. This is not unexpected, considering the Kibaki government presided over an economy plagued by rising crime, unemployment and infant mortality in the cities. Most Kenyans today live below the poverty line with an average annual income of less than a dollar a day. That said, however, the current unrest probably also has as much to do with the smouldering ethnic tensions among the 40-odd tribes that live cheek-by-jowl in Kenya. As a result, tribal bonds often prevail over national identity and political loyalties, and deep-seated prejudices mark major national events like elections. In fact, poll-time clashes between rival tribes happened in 1992 and 1997 as well, when thousands of people were killed. Kenya’s credentials as a frontline State in the fight against terrorism add to the urgency of resolving this conflict as east Africa’s stability is at stake.

With more than 100,000 Indian-origin people living in Kenya — many of them from Gujarat — New Delhi has every reason to be concerned. Indians in Kenya happen to own most of the businesses and this makes them particularly vulnerable to the widespread looting and turmoil there. Hundreds have reportedly taken shelter in temples and gurdwaras after their businesses were burned. The Ministry of External Affairs should offer all necessary moral and diplomatic support to these people. Although they might not be Indian citizens, emergency visas, for instance, could be arranged for those who want to temporarily travel to India.